Friday, February 11, 2005

Suffering Revisited

Yesterday's quote generated some interesting responses, so I continue the dialogue here...

Charles: Hmmm. Aren't our societal conflicts external? I am of the belief that until human suffering becomes a societal concern, it will persist.

Me: I don't think the two ideas are in conflict.
1. societal conflicts are external, but arise primarily out of internal conflicts/suffering/strife.
2. Human suffering should be a societal concern.

As I read it, the quote suggests that social problems are not a ghostly, impliable reality that hovers above us, incapable of being touched or altered by our will or our actions. Instead, it highlights the inextricable implication of the individual in the rise of social problems.

Racism isn't merely a force that floats around the universe; it's contained in the hearts of men, made manifest in their words and actions. These men may make community amongst themselves and cultivate that racism until it is institutionalized, at which point the individual feels defeated because the sheer size of racism makes it appear to be insurmountable.

Take Larry Lyons, for example...Simultaneously, I experience racism as an individual problem (it can hurt, limit or anger me, personally) and as a social problem (it's experienced en masse). The quote reminds me that the catalyst that lies at the root of both of these experiences is not some "always-was-always-will-be" ideological monolith, but a vice that lies in the heart of some men. It is not from the earth's inherent badness that suffering sprouts, it is from the heart/mind/will of the individual.

This may seem disconcerting, and the question begs to be asked:
If I am not a racist, if I am not personally generating that energy, should I suffer its abuses just the same? Why must I be subject to the negativity that exists in the heart of another individual?

This is when I turn the lens right on back to the individual. Although I may succeed in eliminating my own racism, I may not enjoy the same success when it comes to my envy or my vanity or my cattiness or my elitism. However, the fact that the energy (some might call it "negative") is not manifest as racism, per se, does not free me from the karmic returns of the other forms of "negative" energy that I harbor. Don't get me wrong: I am not suggesting here that karma is a punitive force. Karma is not "a bitch," and karma is not out to get you. Karma does not aim to punish. Karma merely makes it possible for you to experience (be confronted with) the energy that already exists within you.

So, when I experience racism, I can't shake my fists at the gods, reminding them that I am not a racist and therefore deserve to be exempt from it. Instead, when confronted with such "negative" energy, I am challenged to use the experience to understand how others are impacted by the vices I do harbor and enact. My personal suffering as a result of racism is not due chiefly to external conditions, it is due primarily to the karmic returns of the energy that I possess -- energy that I am capable of managing.

Thursday, February 10, 2005


The essential truth of suffering is that neither individual nor social problems are due chiefly to external conditions.
-B. Alan Wallace, Tibetan Buddhism From the Ground Up